Monday, August 19, 2013

Martin and Kingsley Amis

Reading Martin Amis's memoir, Experience (2000), in the United States thirteen years after its publication is a strange experience. If you were to chart its primary concerns, two of the top five--the UK tabloid fascination with Amis's personal life, wealth, and success; and his teeth--are likely to be of little interest, to the point at times of near bewilderment, to current Stateside readers. Amis is a name here, of course, but his fame is nothing like what it is in the UK, and neither is our media's attentiveness to writers, period. Jonathan Franzen's Oprah diss was the stuff of news (and, irritatingly, remains so), but if he were to change agents and secure a giant book deal, then get all his teeth replaced, would that be news? Seems unlikely.

Add Amis's reflections on the murder of his cousin Lucy Partington at the hands of a notorious serial killer, meditations that, for all Amis's seemingly honest emotion, can't help but feel out of place, and you've got a strange book.

But then there are those sentences. Amis is a devotee of Nabokov and Bellow, and it shows in nearly every line. And then there is the entertainingly fractured, footnoted structure. And the near-constant self-deprecation, which nicely balances the name-dropping. And Kingsley. So much Kingsley.

No Kingsley fan should skip Martin's book: the portrait of Kingsley in its pages is memorable, and while not seeming sugar-coated, much more likable than the usual picture of a pathologically promiscuous drunk. Martin's Kingsley is, no doubt, a pathologically promiscuous drunk, and an ever-increasingly reactionary one at that, but he is also a father, and in his back and forth with his son, as well as the occasional glimpses of genuine vulnerability that Martin captures, he seems less a monster than a suffering misanthrope.

You get all of that, and a wonderful display of Martin's way with a sentence, in a passage from late in Kingsley's life about the struggle to get him across the street after a long and liquid lunch. First, Martin sets the scene:
When I was young my father gave me a tip about lunchtime drinking and the shadow it cast over dinnertime drinking. Take everything you had at lunch (he said), double it, and imagine you swallowed it in one at 5:55 pm.
In such a state, "an exponential alcoholic kick-in of trouncing efficiency," Martin and Kingsley set off:
On a traffic island in the middle of the Edgeware Road (that eternally disreputable thoroughfare, with its northwestward trek from mammonic Marble Arch, past the pubs and offices and slot-arcades beneath the Westway, past Little Venice, until it subsides into Maida Vale, where we lived in a house with Philip and Jane, thirty years ago), Kingsley fell over. And this was no brisk trip or tumble. It was a work of colossal administration. First came a kind of slow-leak effect, giving me the immediate worry that Kingsley, when fully deflated, would spread out into the street on both sides of the island, where there were cars, trucks, sneezing buses. Next, as I grabbed and tugged, he felt like a great ship settling on its side: would it right itself, or go under? Then came an impression of overall dissolution and the loss of basic physical coherence. I groped around him, looking for places to shore him up, but every bit of him was falling, dropping, seeking the lowest level, like a mudslide.

I got him home in the end. He found some balance, some elevation; I wedged my shoulder in his armpit, and slowly hauled. The incident never stopped being about 3 percent comic. Even with his face at knee height, and his eyes stark with apprehension, like a man disappearing into a swamp, he never lost that glimmer of astonished amusement at what was happening to him--at the weight he carried, at the greed of gravity, at the wheel of years. Dad, you're too old for this shit, I might have said to him. But why bother? Do you think he didn't know?
There's an element of this that is certainly far from comic. At the same time, it's hard to imagine Kingsley, observing such a situation involving another, not instantly grasping its much more than 3% comic potential, which Martin's metaphors (particularly "like a man disappearing into a swamp") hint at. Good god, may none of us ever be in that situation--but should we be, let's be ready to laugh at ourselves.

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